Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 1 February 2022)
Series: Monsters – Book One
Length: 410 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Only a Monster by Australian author Vanessa Len is a particularly wonderful debut highlight of last year that I have been meaning to talk about for some time. A brilliant and awesome young adult fantasy read, Only a Monster is an impressive novel that sees a shocked girl realise that everything she thought she knew about her family was a lie and that deep down she really is a monster. Intense, incredibly clever, and beautifully inventive, Only a Monster was pretty damn epic and proved to be one of the best debuts of 2022.
With the sweeping romance of Passenger and the dark fantasy edge of This Savage Song, this standout YA contemporary fantasy debut from Vanessa Len, is the first in a planned trilogy.
It should have been the perfect summer. Sent to stay with her late mother’s eccentric family in London, sixteen-year-old Joan is determined to enjoy herself. She loves her nerdy job at the historic Holland House, and when her super cute co-worker Nick asks her on a date, it feels like everything is falling into place.
But she soon learns the truth. Her family aren’t just eccentric: they’re monsters, with terrifying, hidden powers. And Nick isn’t just a cute boy: he’s a legendary monster slayer, who will do anything to bring them down.
As she battles Nick, Joan is forced to work with the beautiful and ruthless Aaron Oliver, heir to a monster family that hates her own. She’ll have to embrace her own monstrousness if she is to save herself, and her family. Because in this story . . .
. . . she is not the hero.
Only a Monster has an awesome story that takes a teenage girl on a dark journey of self-discovery and magical adventure as she tries to figure out who she is and what lies within her. Len starts this book quickly, with a good introduction to central protagonist and point-of-view character Joan Chang-Hunt, who is part of the unusual Hunt family. A shuddering moment of unreality reveals that she is really half monster, someone who has the ability to steal time from humans to power their time-travelling abilities. Though Joan initially tries to avoid this revelation and enjoy time with her crush, Nick, an encounter with the malevolent Oliver family of monsters forces her further into their hidden world, especially when it is revealed that Nick is secretly a monster slayer destined to kill every monster in existence, including Joan. After a brutal series of events that sees most of her family and the other monsters of London killed in a single, coordinated massacre, Joan flees into the past with her surviving cousin Ruth and the youngest member of the Oliver family, Aaron, hoping to find a way to save their families. Their quest leads them to try and recover a legendary artifact that will allow them to rewrite time. But to do so, they will need to go up against the mysterious King of the Monsters and his dangerous plot to control reality. Caught between monsters and monster slayers, the characters are forced into a series of deadly encounters which will force Joan to choose whether to retain her humanity or embrace her inner monster.
Len really came up with something special in Only a Monster, and I personally loved how this outstanding debut unfolded. The author keeps a pretty fast pace throughout the entire book, and you are constantly thrown from intense moment to intense moment as the protagonist and her companions attempt to stay ahead of their enemies and find a way to bring back their families. I felt that Len did a great job introducing her compelling world, fantastic characters and unique magical elements, and you quickly learn to appreciate the author’s inventive ideas. This is actually a pretty dark read, especially as it starts with a massacre and focuses on a group of magical beings who can suck the life force out of normal humans to power their abilities. I personally deeply enjoyed this darker tone, as Len balances it well with her unique creative ideas and the emotional character development to create an intense and addictive read. The magical time travel elements of this book are very well done, and the darker ideas behind the absorption of people’s time span helped to make it a malevolent gift that the protagonist is forced to use by necessity. Despite this, it does produce some fun time travel jokes, and I had a laugh at some of the pop culture references that were utilised in the identification of the period. Len also lays down a series of interesting twists throughout the story which are revealed at perfect moments and which help to produce a pretty amazing story. However, the absolute highlight of this book had to be the epic ending that Len decided to traumatise her readers with. While I’m not going to give away anything here, let’s just say it is pretty insane, and I was deeply impressed with how Len set it up and executed it.
The final thing I really need to gush about when it comes to Only a Monster is the deeply complex and damaged characters featured within. Only a Monster features a fun crew of central protagonists, each of whom are going through their own epic journeys. The primary focus is on central character Joan Chang-Hunt, a sweet and nerdy character who, in the course of a day, finds out she is a half-monster with life-sucking time travel abilities, and then witnesses her entire extended family getting massacred. This naturally causes her to experience a lot of emotions and trauma as she constantly tries to come to terms with how her life has unravelled and changed forever. The main focus of her character arc is the examination of her inner monster as Joan tries to get to grips on whether she wants her abilities, especially as they force her to drain away people’s time. She is also dealing with intense guilt over her role in the massacre that destroyed her family, partially thanks to her relationship with Nick, and this clashes hard with her own concerns about being a monster. All this, and more, ensures that Joan is forced to grow up a lot throughout the course of Only a Monster, and she must keep making harder and harder decision as she gets closer to crossing lines she doesn’t want to. Her final actions in this book bring all these deep feelings close to the surface as she is forced to make a terrible decision in a heartbreaking and powerful scene. Len did an outstanding job when it came to Joan in this book, and I look forward to seeing how she continues to develop in future entries in this series.
Two other major characters I need to highlight are Joan’s accidental companion, Aaron Oliver, and her crush/personal nightmare, Nick. Both characters have pretty dark introductions to the story, especially as they end up trying to kill Joan in the starting chapters, but Len develops them separately as the book continues. Aaron ends up working with Joan as they try to stay alive and find a way to save their families, and they become an intriguing and combative duo throughout the book. While Aaron is initially arrogant and antagonistic, you soon see that this is a façade, as Aaron is also incredibly damaged due to the actions of his cruel family. Len does a wonderful job of slowly uncovering this deeper side of Aaron throughout the course of Only a Monster, and the eventual bond he forms with Joan is a touching and moving part of the book, even if it isn’t destined to last. Nick, on the other hand, is an outstanding villain for this story, especially when it is revealed that he is an unflinching and implacable monster hunter. Despite the connection he had formed with Joan before the events of this book, mainly because he sees her as more human than monster, Nick soon starts fanatically hunting her throughout time and becomes determined to stop her at all costs. Clever and dark reveals about Nick come to light as the book continues, painting him in a somewhat sympathetic light, but this doesn’t stop him from hunting Joan, which leads to an exceptional and shocking confrontation towards the end of Only a Monster that perfectly changes everything. The powerful character work contained in these central characters, as well as the intense bonds they form with Joan, are such a key part of Only a Monster, and you will come away heartbroken and moved with how their storylines unfold.
Overall, I had an incredible time with Vanessa Len’s Only a Monster, and not only was it one of the best debuts of 2022 but one of the best young adult books of the year as well. This brilliant and powerful fantasy read had an amazing story and you will be impressed and excited by the complex characters and deeply inventive fantasy elements that are worked into this compelling narrative. Intense, dark, and full of hope, Only a Monster is an incredible read that comes highly recommended to anyone interested in seeing the start of an extremely promising career in fantasy fiction. I am very excited to check out the sequel, Never a Hero, later this year, and if Len keeps up the amazing writing from Only a Monster, it is going to be particularly epic and exceptional.